Salty, bitter, sweet, and sour: These four basic taste categories are easily recognizable to most people, as are the foods that exemplify them, like French fries (salty), coffee (bitter), ice cream (sweet), and lemons (sour).
You’ve probably also heard of a fifth, more elusive taste: umami. Derived from a Japanese word that translates to “pleasant savory taste,” umami is embodied in such foods as soy sauce, hard cheeses, and mushrooms—and it’s getting increasing attention as food manufacturers look for innovative ways to create a savory taste with less sodium. Here are some of the new places you might encounter umami, plus tips for imparting umami in your own dishes.
Chasing that meaty, “brothy” flavor
Umami was originally conceptualized in the early twentieth century, but it wasn’t until 1985, at an international symposium on umami held in Hawaii, that this flavor—often described as “meaty” or “brothy”—was officially recognized as a distinct taste by the food science community.
The food additive MSG—monosodium glutamate, commonly used in Chinese cooking—is often referenced as the epitome of umami flavor. But many foods naturally contain umami components, including mushrooms, soy sauce, tomatoes, olives, hard cheeses, beef jerky, green tea, miso, anchovies, nutritional yeast, and shellfish.
It is these natural umami sources that food manufacturers have their eyes on as potential ingredients to enhance saltiness, making it possible to satisfy the demand for lower-sodium offerings without compromising flavor. Here are a few examples, though two of the three are currently available only to food companies (not for retail sale):
• A sodium replacement for processed meats. A January 2016 article in the Institute for Food Technology’s Food Technology magazine reported on a new product available to food producers, Umamix, that combines sea salt with “extracts from tomato, shiitake mushrooms, and kombu seaweed” to create a liquid ingredient that the manufacturer, Salt of the Earth, says can take the place of up to 45 percent of the sodium in processed meats.
• A mushroom-based taste-bud fooler. In the Netherlands, a company called Scelta Mushrooms has created a “flavor accelerator” made exclusively from mushroom and umami-rich vegetable extracts. It’s currently being used by European food companies to enhance umami and salty perception in reduced-sodium products such as soups, and it may make an appearance in U.S. company offerings soon, according to the Food Technology article.
• Umami powder. Several manufacturers sell umami seasonings that contain dried mushrooms like porcini and shiitake, sometimes blended with dried chiles, onion, miso powder, or other ingredients. These finely ground powders can be sprinkled on top of food or incorporated into dishes. If you're watching your sodium intake, note that some contain salt.
Flavor enhancing aside, greater public awareness of ingredients and a push for “cleaner ingredient lists”—fewer additives and more easily recognizable ingredients—is nudging natural sources of umami into the spotlight, and not just in traditionally salty offerings. One of the latest culinary trends is to use umami flavors in sweet foods—for example, adding a small amount of powdered mushrooms and miso to enrich the chocolate flavor in truffles.
Making umami your own
To incorporate more umami flavors into homemade dishes, consider using miso paste or a small amount of soy sauce in place of traditional salt in dressings and dips; adding finely chopped mushrooms and olives to pasta dishes; or sprinkling nutritional yeast, which has a flavor reminiscent of parmesan cheese, over soups or salads. This ingredient is especially popular in the vegan community because many brands are fortified with vitamin B12, which is normally found in animal products.